Ulster must take the fight to Toulon

European champions bring their multi-talented squad to Belfast for the first time

On paper these things sometimes seem to never quite add up. If you have Bakkies Botha, James O'Connor and Ali Williams and you leave them on the bench, then what of the strength of your starting team.

Virtual rugby has always been easy but Toulon, if you were to gauge them by last week’s 28-18 run out against Scarlets, never added up to the sum of their parts.

It was suggested that over confidence fed into their psyche and you can see how that might happen.

Twice European Champions they may be, but Ulster have no need to panic. Not yet. Not going by last week. But looking at the line-up of Bernard Laporte's French team they could be tempted.


Ulster believe a sizeable chunk of their game in round one was handed to Leicester at Welford Road and if the side can produce an 80-minute performer, Toulon should be worried. Rory Best said it straight during the week.

Good start

“We had a good start to the game last week, then a horrendous 30 minutes. We went from 3-0 up to 7-3 down and then three missed tackles later it is 19-3, we are down to 14 men with a sin-binning and we just wanted to get it to half time,” said the Ulster captain.

Ulster will look for inspiration to their 29-9 win over Glasgow a few weeks ago and use the performance as a benchmark of what they can do.

In reality Toulon look a challenge of a different magnitude. Any weakness in a back line with Halfpenny, Delon Armitage, Bastareaud, Mermoz, Habana and Giteau appears only if they mess things up. Otherwise Ulster seems outrageously outgunned.

Playing hard defence, as Ulster intend, is semi-destructive and coach Neil Doak hinted this week that the supply line is their target. That will take commitment and discipline and they are in good supply if Ulster don't panic.

Roger Wilson comes in at number eight and will give the province a useful confrontational edge with the mercurial Stuart Olding re-established in the centre. That's an interesting shift from coach Neil Doak from the burley Stuart McCloskey in the centre to slippery Olding.

Toulon have made a number of changes as Delon Armitage comes in on the right wing, while Michael Claassens is named at scrumhalf ahead of Sebastien Tillous-Borde. Juan Smith moves to the replacements as Chris Masoe moves to number eight, with Steffon Armitage switching to the flank alongside Juan Fernandez Lobbe.

Doak can be buoyed by some of the statistics including Ulster’s record of six wins from their last seven against French opposition, while 11 of the last 13 clashes with opponents from across the Channel at Ravenhill have gone the way of the hosts.

Targeting set pieces and a fast start will be two basic requirements for Ulster. They will take the fight to them. That’s probably all they can do and maybe all they need to do.

Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson is a sports writer with The Irish Times